Opinion

Why University Rankings Cause Too Much Anxiety

And what you can learn about higher ed ‘branding’ at two Vancouver events next week.

By Michelle Stack 12 May 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Michelle Stack is associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia and author of Global University Ranking and the Mediatization of Higher Education. @MichelleLStack on Twitter.

If you thought B.C. election night was nerve wracking, consider life for students trying to decide whether, and where, to attend university.

During the campaign, students expressed fears of facing record high school related debt, and worries they won’t land a job when they graduate. Anxiety about getting into the right school to have the best future starts young. It prompts students to obsess over college rankings, which too often ends up causing them to feel bad for not getting into a top-ranked school. Or, if they do get in, they’re frazzled trying to figure out how to pay the high tuition top-ranked schools demand.

But what if that way of thinking is not grounded in reality?

As a professor of education at UBC, I have been studying university rankings and my research (and that of researchers coming to a roundtable at UBC next week) shows that popular rankings have little to do with quality of education and experience for students.

A high ranking is connected with the willingness of a university to align itself with the metrics of rankers and to spend substantial dollars on marketing. This can influence which faculty are hired, what research is seen as high value and which students are seen as worthy of receiving funding. Highly ranked institutions are generally wealthier relative to others in the region, and so too are many of the students who attend them.

It might seem odd that I offer such caveats, given that I work at a top-ranked university. Don’t get me wrong. As a faculty member at UBC, I am partial to the place. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with brilliant students and colleagues.

But does this make UBC better than other public institutions in B.C.?

The answer is as personal and individual as each student pondering how best to achieve their goals in higher education. Which is why I am helping to host a gathering of experts on the power and problems related to university rankings. If you are interested in postsecondary education, a secondary school teacher, or a student or family member feeling anxious about where to enrol after graduation, I invite you to attend one of our public events Monday or Tuesday evening. (More on how to do that at the end.)

Rankings are big business

The most influential university rankings use indicators such as reputation of a university based on surveys, the number of Nobel Prize winners on staff, the amount of research money, the number of international students and faculty, industry funding, the number of PhD on staff, and faculty to student ratio.

Rankings matter to the bottom line. Governments look to rankings to make funding decisions and even to develop immigration policy. Donors and industry use them to decide where to put dollars. In turn, the higher education sector puts more money and more money into branding and getting a good ranking.

The question is how did rankings come to matter so much and why and what impact do they have on the cost of education in B.C.?

Education is big business. Globally the education industry is calculated to be worth over $4.7 trillion. Popular rankings are marketing money magnets. The goal is to sell rankings products to media outlets and the plethora of businesses that use rankings to sell products. New higher education marketing magazines have emerged, along with costly conferences. Some universities even hire well-paid ranking managers. All aimed at burnishing the competitive brand of a university or college.

If we start with the premise that rankings are a business product and universities and media are the major customers for rankers, where does this leave students? They are greatly concerned, for example, about rising debt and tuition fees. Yet these issues aren’t part of rankers’ calculations. In fact, a rise in ranking often spurs a college to raise its fees.

Nor do rankers measure other matters of prime concern to students, such as how a university deals with sexual assaults on campus, equity and social justice, the quality of teaching and opportunities for students to be engaged in their communities.

Neither do popular rankings gauge whether an institution makes investment decisions in keeping with respecting Indigenous knowledge, community engagement or sustainability.

What really matters to students

A big part of rankings is reputation. When I ask people to tell me “What is the top university in the world?” usually the response is Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. But their answers are far less certain when I ask: What do you know about what happens in those institutions? What do you know about the quality of teaching?

What we do know is that more often than not students from wealthy, white background go to these universities and some buy their way in. Now a lot of good things go on at Harvard and competitors, but if you are a first-year student at Harvard how do you know you will get a better education than a student at a small college, with small classes, cheap tuition and teachers hired for their teaching abilities?

One number cannot measure whether an institution is great for all types of students and varied interests. One university might be a great place for someone that wants to become get a PhD in physics but not for someone who intends to be a social worker or an English teacher.

Dizzy from spin?

Rankings frame education as a private good. This frame assumed smart students go to smart universities. Left out is that in Canada most universities are publicly funded and that many smart students have rising debt as public funding decreases. The decreasing public funds put university leaders in a Catch 22. They can accept ranking spin so they can attract student and private investment, but the cost can be the public good.

We are in a time of “alternative facts.” Universities more than ever have a responsibility to challenge spin. A good place to start would be in downplaying rankings which, as I’ve explained, are based on selective criteria, and so are a form of spin. Enough studies to fill a small library point to the methodology flaws with popular rankings and the underpinning assumptions that have little if anything to do with education for the public good.

To create an alternative requires asking ourselves: What do we want the role of education to be in society? These are not just questions about individual students making the best choices for themselves. We need to also ask what makes for a healthy educational system in a democratic society.

What should we expect of higher education and who should decide? The question is urgent. And this election offers some hope. As we anticipate a likely minority government in B.C. and hear politicians declaring they’ve heard voters saying they want a more cooperative approach to governing, perhaps there is an opportunity to have a new conversation about education that goes beyond ranking spin.

The first global research-based conference in Canada on rankings will be held at UBC from May 13 to May 17th. At two public events, six experts from five countries will talk about rankings as part of global and national trends in higher education and the relevance to students and knowledge production. Come to one or both events and be part of the conversation. Find out more and register by clicking here. Or see the sidebar to this article for more details on the public events.  [Tyee]

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